Wednesday, May 22, 2019

When news stories celebrating people with disabilities do them wrong

"'People with disabilities can do phenomenal things': JSU student with cerebral palsy graduates Summa Cum Laude," the headline proclaimed. And a whole lot of people in Jackson, Mississippi would have read that or seen the corresponding news report on WLBT news and thought, WOW, AMAZING, YOU CAN HAVE CP—POOR THING—AND STILL DO OK FOR YOURSELF!

They were getting the wrong message, starting with the fact that this story made news at all. I'm thinking about this because Cara Liebowitz, Developmental Coordinator at the National Council on Independent Living, recently posted about it on Facebook. "I graduated from college summa cum laude, too," wrote Cara, who has CP. "Did you see any inspirational headlines about me? No! Because it's literally not news! I'm happy for this young woman, but this is a personal accomplishment. It's not newsworthy just because she has CP!"

Exactly. This young woman is accomplished—but she shouldn't be deemed more so by a news station for having graduated with cerebral palsy. It's the phenomenon that's known as inspiration porn, and it's perpetuated by social media. While I appreciated this woman's can-do message, given the fact that she had been bullied, in the end this sort of article doesn't do her or people with CP any favors.

My thinking on this has evolved over the years, especially as I've connected with adults in the disability community. When the media makes a big to-do about people with disabilities and typical achievements, it unintentionally tells a different story that says people with disabilities actually aren't that capable, and so let's make a big deal of it when we happen to hear of someone succeeding. It's a vicious cycle that perpetuates negative stereotypes of PWD.

Obviously, this woman should be proud of herself, as should her family. In our own family and on this blog, I chronicle Max's achievements, big and small. I'm his coach, his cheerleader, his champion—it's what we moms do. I hope to encourage other moms who need more hope. At the same time, I also try to spread a message that isn't always apparent to others: cerebral palsy is a condition, not a tragedy. People with cerebral palsy have abilities, same as any people on this planet. They go to school, graduate college, date, marry, have babies. Or they do their own thing. You know: humans.

To be sure, CP comes with challenges, especially because of a lack of accommodations. Colleges, for one, have a long way to go in terms of being inclusive. Still: perception matters. There are so many stereotypes about people with disabilities that create obstacles for them—socially, in the job market and basically in every part of life. And all of us should be aware of not perpetuating them.

What I desperately want for Max is for people to assume competence, capability and potential. Please, consider that before you share an article about a person with disabilities doing something seemingly amazing when, really, they are just living their lives.

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